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CITY LIGHTS
Blu-ray/DVD Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Allan Garcia, Florence Lee
Director:  Charlie Chaplin
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Standard 1.19:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date: 
March 2, 2004                              

Film ****

City Lights is one of the greatest films ever made, and is perhaps the quintessential Charlie Chaplin.  It is uproariously funny and poignantly heartbreaking.  It is a beautifully realized masterpiece of visual storytelling that seems to effortlessly encompass the broad range of humor and emotion.  The ending, which is one of the most famous in film history, was called by legendary critic James Agee as “the high point of movies”.

Chaplin, who’s Little Tramp character has remained on of the most recognizable American icons, created this silent classic some four years after the advent of the talking picture, and in fact, one additional one a few years later, Modern Times.  He had created a character who expressed himself beautifully without words…in fact, this film has surprisingly few title cards representing dialogue.  It was perhaps a testament to his popularity that audiences still flocked to see his pictures in an era when the silent movie was quickly becoming old hat.

The silent character suited Chaplin’s directorial style as well.  I can think of very few directors who seemed so completely at ease in telling his story in almost strict visual terms.  We always understand his characters by their actions and demeanor, and the adventures or crises they find themselves in.  He relays the emotion through a few simple acts of pantomime, a few visual symbols, or a carefully placed dissolve or iris effect.  A few frames of a Chaplin film could speak as many volumes as an hour of frantic Tarantino-like dialogue.

City Lights is elegant in its simplicity.  A poor, homeless tramp (Chaplin) falls in love with a beautiful, kind, sightless flower girl (Cherrill).  Everyone else the tramp encounters reacts to his ragged clothes, silly walk, and obvious low station in life.  The blind girl, however, does not judge the tramp based on his appearance.  The two become friends.  Because of a few chance circumstances, she believes the tramp is actually a rich man…and though she doesn’t care about money, the tramp tries to maintain the image for her as best as he can.

The side story involves his on again, off again friendship with a drunken millionaire (Myers).  Under the influence, he takes the tramp out to light up the down, but when sober, he doesn’t remember a thing, including why this tramp keeps showing up in his house.  Their antics together are memorable and hysterical, from the tramp attempting to prevent the drunk’s suicide only to end up the one in the river with the rock tied around his neck, or the dinner engagement that plays like a dance, as the two intoxicated men constantly take off their jackets to fight an imagined enemy.  Or the party at the fellow’s mansion, where the tramp swallows a whistle and becomes a boon to everyone’s enjoyment, except for the dogs.

As the story progresses, the blind girl has an opportunity to have a sight restoring operation, and the tramp does everything he can to come up with the money to help her.  He agrees to a boxing match at a local club, but ends up in the ring with a big bruiser of a man.  This is one of Chaplin’s most famous bits, in a comedic sequence that’s almost balletic in form—he dances around keeping the referee between himself and his opponent—delightfully funny stuff.  Too bad it doesn’t work out for the tramp.

He eventually gets some money from his drunken rich friend, only to be accused of stealing it later during his stretch of sobriety.  In a beautifully constructed scene, he hands over the money to the girl, prudently keeping the last bill for himself.  She gratefully kisses his hand, and he nonchalantly pulls the last bill back out of his pocket and hands it to her.  He tells her he has to go away for a little while, and says his goodbye.  Outside, he’s arrested for the theft.

Some two years pass, and the tramp is back out on the street.  He’s more ragged than ever, and joyless, sauntering along slowly with his head down to the taunts and sneers of those around him.  The girl is no longer blind, and running a flower shop, still hoping some day the rich man will show up so she can thank him. 

When the tramp passes by, he recognizes her.  She doesn’t know who he is, but feels sorry for him, and cheerfully comes out to bring him a flower and a coin.  She touches his hand, and…in a beautiful, lingering moment, a quiet recognition comes across her face.  “You?” she asks.  He nods.  “You can see now?” he asks, rather shyly.  “Yes, I can see now,” she answers.  She takes his hand in hers in a mix of half laughter, half tears.  The end.  If there was ever a more beautiful moment captured on film, I have yet to see it.  My clumsy description, and indeed, the descriptions of countless other critics who have written about the film over the years, could never fully prepare you for the true emotion Chaplin captures in those moments.  Only the hardest hearts will be able to suppress the tears.

I’m happy this film has made it to Blu-ray, especially for anyone out there who may not have had the privilege of seeing a Chaplin feature beginning to end.  This is the film you’d want to start with.  It is funny, touching, and magical in an almost effortless way, and is the apex of a true cinematic genius’ amazing career.

Video ****

I used to think the old CBS/Fox presentations of these Chaplin classics were excellent, but Criterion's re-releases continue to surpass them.  Despite being some 70 years old, this is a remarkable looking print, cleaned up wonderfully for this Blu-ray.  The presentation is incredibly clean, with crisply rendered images and practically no artifacts of aging.  The black and white photography renders beautifully, with no grain or compression evident.  These titles are some of the best looking silents available on Blu-ray. 

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack preserves Chaplin's original score beautifully.  It's quite clean sounding, if not as full as more modern music recordings.

Features ****

This set begins with a wonderful commentary track by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.  There is also a socumentary on the film, an interview with a visual effects expert, actual archival footage from the set of the movie, with historian commentary, a costume test, a rehearsal, and even a complete deleted scene.  Excerpts from the Chaplin short "The Champion" also shows the filmmaker hosting some boxing stars at his studios.  Rounding out is a trailer and a terrific booklet featuring photos and essays.

There is also a DVD of the movie included, which also has all of the above mentioned extras.

Summary:

City Lights is the greatest film from one of the cinema’s most endearing, influential geniuses.  Enough said.  This beautiful Blu-ray offering is unquestionably a must-own.

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